The Hazards of Love is the newest offering from indie rockers The Decemberists. Known for their less-than-popular style, they've won the hearts of many fans with their unique sound and album composition. I in particular am a huge fan, and I think all of their albums are amazing. However, Hazards really takes the cake.
The premise of this album is a story that revolves around a girl named Margaret. She lives near the taiga (think Russian plains/steppes), and one day comes upon an injured faun. As she stops to help it, the area around her shifts and changes, as does the faun, turning into a handsome human, William. The album follows their paths to each other and true love, braving a cold Forest Queen and a child-killing bandit.
The album opens with the haunting "Prelude", which feels like the lights coming up on the stage as the show begins. The thing I loved about this album is that I could very clearly see it play out on my mind's stage.
"Prelude" segues into the opening vocal "The Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won't Wrestle the Thistles Undone)", featuring Meloy setting out the backstory and beginning of Margaret's journey. This is the first of the "Hazards of Love" tracks, which are variants on the melody of this first piece.
We can guess what goes on in "A Bower Scene", and Margaret finds herself pregnant, and sets out into the taiga in search of her true love, William. A special thing that I really enjoyed is that Margaret and other characters are voiced by guest vocalists. Margaret is the lovely Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond, and Meloy provides vocals for William and the evil Rake. The track "Won't Want For Love (Margaret in the Taiga) is bolstered by a steady bass beat under Stark's airy vocals, and evokes a long search in the wild.
The best song on this album is the fight between William and his aloof mother, The Forest Queen (Shara Worden aka My Brightest Diamond) in the track "The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid". It's easily my favorite, and really gives the impression of the furious and overbearing Queen forbidding William to go to Margaret. In the end, he is given one night to go to her, but is foiled by our villain, the filicidal Rake.
"The Rake's Song" is a terrible and haunting account of the murder of his children and how he "came to be living easy and free". I have to say, after a few listens I found myself nodding my head to the beat, which is catchy and strange at the same time. It's one of the many songs on the album that requires more than one listen to really grasp, and once you do...oh boy. That song is terrifying.
All the way through this album I'm picturing the story unfolding on stage, and it's incredible. I'd love to see an actual stage production of this album at some point. The picture Meloy and Co. paint with their appropriate music and amazing vocals is one that engrosses you and draws you in, which is something that most albums and artists don't do anymore. This is really a story that needs to be listened to from beginning to end, multiple times. Singles from this album would be like publishing the 2nd page of "Where the Wild Things Are" or "The Cat In The Hat" as a separate book. It just wouldn't make sense on it's own.
Hazards concludes with the lovely and heartbreaking "The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)", as our lovers take their vows and their last breaths on a sinking ship. The musical theme of the album all comes together in this last track, parallelling Margaret and William's love. It really makes for a sonic masterpiece.
All together, this is one of the BEST albums I have ever heard. It's masterfully excuted, with all the songs in the right places and a moving and involving tale of love and loss. According to my iTunes, I've listened to this album 12 times now, and I don't plan to stop anytime soon.